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The Life

November 13, 2002
Out From Under
ESPN The Magazine

The dad calls collect. He calls collect every two weeks, and sometimes the mom is dying to say, "We will not accept the charges." That mom, she can be a real ice queen. She does home foreclosures for a living, and you've got to be cold to do that job. And that mom can be Fargo, North Dakota cold. Especially when it comes to the dad calling collect. From prison.

D.J. Strawberry
She's got a lot of bones to pick with that dad, but No. 1 is the harm he's done to their boy. Their boy turned 17 last summer, and he still won't tell anyone his first name. It's her own fault for agreeing to name him Darryl Strawberry Jr., but she had no idea Darryl Strawberry Sr. would end up playing softball in a penitentiary. Cocaine had always been Darryl Sr.'s vice, but one night, in April 1999, he wanted to have sex with a hooker for dessert. He was arrested for solicitation of prostitution, and when his 11-year-old daughter, Diamond, heard about it, she asked her grandma, "Nana, what's prostitution?" But the boy, the other Darryl Strawberry, knew exactly what it was. Which is why he spent much of ninth and 10th grade avoiding school, avoiding roll call, avoiding this question from his teachers: Is Darryl Strawberry present?

That's a hell of a name to carry around, and he kept seeing it in print. He read in the paper that his father broke probation six times. He read in the paper that his father, while in rehab, traded autographed baseballs for cigarettes. The boy had some of his dad's baseballs too, but he never would have traded them in a trillion years. When he was little -- we're talking kindergarten age -- he'd traded away his dad's baseball card, then cried about it, apologized to his dad about it. He idolized his dad back then. Played baseball every day. Wore the man's New York Mets XXL wristbands all up his arm. Wore No.18 and swung for the moon. But that was over now, and on his 17th birthday the other Darryl Strawberry waited for a collect call that never came.

"His father's made our lives miserable," the mom says. Her name is Lisa Watkins, and she divorced his butt nine years ago, deservedly so. The only problem is, she still bad-mouths him, wears him out, tells people he's no good -- even tells it to their own son. "Too bad she's so bitter," Darryl Sr. says from a Florida prison. But this is the I'll-get-you-back in her, and their son has had to listen to it for years.

"My mom, she'll always throw in a joke about my dad," says Darryl Jr. "Like, 'You don't want to end up like him, do you?' Or, 'You want to go live with him in prison?' It just makes me not want to be like him even more. We joke around with it, but it's nothing to joke about."

He is a high school senior caught between a dad addicted to drugs and a mom on a power trip. And that has forced this doe-eyed boy, at 17, to choose between everyone and everything. Baseball? Chose against it. The name Darryl Strawberry? Chose against it. Marijuana and cocaine? Chose against it. The U. of Maryland basketball team, 3,000 miles away from his mother? All for it. "Gotta break the cycle," says the other Darryl Strawberry, the most amazing Strawberry yet.

    "If you go interview his dad in prison, I swear you will not get an interview with my son. He does not want to be associated with his dad." -- Lisa Watkins

So this is how the kid has survived. By denying his name is Darryl.

The dad is the last to know. He sits in a Gainesville, Fla., prison -- where his 335 career home runs do not earn him a single privilege -- and talks about walking right back into his son's life.

"When I get out, I want to be there for him," the dad says.

But there's a whole childhood he has missed, a puberty that has included chants of "Daaaa-ryl, Daaaa-ryl" at high school basketball games and the usual offers to smoke weed at parties.

"I'm afraid to try," says Darryl Jr. "I don't want to be like my dad."

"Good," says Darryl Sr. "I don't want him to be like me, either."

Careful what you wish for. When he's released April 29 after 12 months in minimum-security lockdown, Darryl Strawberry will not recognize his son. They still have the same face, the same ample nose -- "Everywhere I go, people say, 'You look like your dad,'" the son says -- but everything else about Darryl Jr. has changed. Height. Weight. Mind. He refuses to visit his father in prison, which means they haven't seen each other since Darryl Sr.'s surgery two years ago for colon and stomach cancer -- and the reason is sheer embarrassment. Darryl Jr. thought it best to strip himself of everything Strawberry.

And the first thing to go was baseball.

As a toddler, young Darryl had been the annual star attraction at Shea Stadium's Family Day, always sliding into first base. But then his mom started kicking his dad out of their Encino, Calif., mansion, and imagine what that did to a boy toting a miniature bat. The first breakup, in October 1986, was so public it made tabloid TV; in police reports, Lisa described her husband as a drunk and a cheat who broke her nose. They reconciled -- until the next 911 call in 1990. This time, according to the police report, she swatted him with an iron fireplace rod, and he retreated to a closet for a gun. She claimed he said, "I'm going to shoot you," although he told police he had merely waved the gun and asked why it was loaded. She never pressed charges, even stayed with him another three years.

Their son's ensuing teenage years were just as absurd. His mother remarried a man named -- of all things -- Darrell (they have since separated). His father remarried too, and joined the Yankees. Darryl Jr. would fly to New York over the summer, to live with his dad and be a bat boy. And for a while he considered himself lucky. "He wouldn't want to leave," Darryl Sr. says. "He'd cry before getting on the plane."

But then came the cocaine, always the cocaine. Just as the kid was planning to be a bat boy again during the Yankees' 1999 title run, his father was suspended a third time for another binge. "I was like, 'Why? Why again?'" Darryl Jr. recalls.

He was in ninth grade, playing prep baseball in Pasadena, when the snide comments began. "You know kids -- the druggie jokes would come out," says Darryl Jr.'s coach at the time, Scott Thayer. "He was shy, and the only time he responded to it, he said, 'I don't do that stuff.' "

Whenever it hit the papers that his dad was suspended, arrested, late with child support or AWOL from rehab, the boy would simply stay home, in bed. And that's why baseball had to go. He was a shortstop/pitcher/ centerfielder for a Blair High squad that had won only one game in three years, and it wasn't worth the aggravation. "If I had concentrated on baseball, I'd be probably one of the top prospects right now," he says. "But it was too much for me -- just the expectations, just hearing about my dad."

Basketball was safer, not that he seemed to have a future in it. He began playing AAU ball in sixth grade, and never left the bench. But he had a work ethic -- something his dad was never accused of -- and by 10th grade he was 6'2" and becoming a nuisance to other teams. DeAnthony Langston, an AAU coach, noticed him at Michael Jordan's camp in Santa Barbara, and took him to Houston with his California traveling team. Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos happened to be in Texas that week, and when he saw Darryl Jr. curl fluidly off a screen and shoot, he told Langston, "He looks just like Juan Dixon." Patsos also liked that the kid was defense-first and pass-first, that he was hungry and a late bloomer -- just like Dixon, the Terps' all-time leading scorer. It helped that Langston's former college coach at Long Beach State, Joe Harrington, was a close friend of Maryland coach Gary Williams. With Langston, the Terps had an in.

By the end of the summer, the boy was 6'4" and looking for a larger stage. He asked his mother if he could transfer to Mater Dei in Santa Ana, a local basketball power. Lisa could have said no, but protecting her son was almost an obsession. She attended all of his games, or sent her mother, and nothing Darryl Jr. did slipped through the cracks. If his father was arrested, Lisa was the first to break the news. If her son wanted to try alcohol, she was the first to say, "Addiction is hereditary." When Darryl Sr. was diagnosed with cancer, she was the first to lend Darryl Jr. an ear. When the boy begged to attend Mater Dei, she was the first to go meet the teachers.

Lisa had put her son first at a time when his father was putting cocaine and tramps first, and Darryl Jr. says if it weren't for her, he probably would have tried "all of that, too -- trust me, I've been tempted." So when he asked to change schools, she simply put him first again. She moved the family into a foreclosed home near the Mater Dei campus, handed him a cell phone and turned him over to a hoops program that had won four state titles in 15 years.

"Basketball became a release for me," he says. "Because once I get on the court, I forget everything my dad does, everything my dad did. I couldn't forget him when I played baseball."

But there was still one more thing to get rid of: his first name.

The "Daaaa-ryl, Daaaa-ryl" chants at Blair High had always amused him, but what bothered him was the PA announcers saying, "Darryl Strawberry entering the game." Especially after the prostitution arrest. The name itself had become laughable. So, at Lisa's suggestion, he changed his name to D.J. Strawberry. All the PA announcers were told to call him D.J. -- no exceptions.

"The worst thing about being Darryl Strawberry's son is carrying the name around," he says. "D.J. got me away from Darryl, made me separate -- made me my own person."

Strawberry family
In better days, the Strawberrys were a loving, complete family.
It also made for a less stressful first season at Mater Dei, where he was willing to accept the role of sixth man. D.J. needed time to fit into coach Gary McKnight's disciplined system. According to Langston, McKnight told Lisa that her son didn't shoot the ball well enough to be anything more than a mid-major college player, a Pepperdine type. But D.J. kept his mouth shut, averaged 11.5 points a game and stayed after practice to shoot, sometimes until 10:30 at night. The kid was coachable, and McKnight began to see why Maryland was interested: "It's his attitude. His attitude is his selling point."

Imagine that -- an overachieving Strawberry.

When Maryland brought D.J. in for a campus visit this September and put him in a pickup game with current Terps, it was a transcendent moment. As the kid hustled and slashed to the basket, an intrigued Washington Wizards rookie watched from the sidelines. D.J. Strawberry may have an addict for a father, but Juan Dixon had two addicts for parents, both of whom died of AIDS. And what Dixon told Gary Williams that weekend was that D.J. Strawberry reminded him of himself.

Up until then, Williams still hadn't been sold. So he flew west and saw a Mater Dei practice. He saw a sleek Strawberry play defense end to end -- which is generally what makes Williams drool -- and witnesses say the coach's exact comment was "un-effing-believable." Un-effing-believable is right. That the kid had gotten to this place.

A magazine is at the house to do a photo shoot, to announce D.J. Strawberry as a coming attraction, and his mother is busy with a hammer and a nail. She is putting up a poster on her son's bedroom wall, a poster he can pose in front of. It's a poster of a familiar face, a poster that's been autographed: Best Wishes, Darryl Strawberry.

Four months ago, she wouldn't allow her son to do an interview about his dad. Two months after that, she said she'd let him talk if the magazine "put in writing" that the father wasn't involved. But when their son verballed to Maryland in late September, she gave the magazine carte blanche.

So she put up that Darryl Strawberry poster, even though months earlier she'd said, "His father is trying to live his dreams through D.J." She put up that poster, even though months earlier she'd said, "He doesn't call on his birthday, but he wants back in his life?" She put up that poster, even though the autograph wasn't written for her son. She put up that poster because she knows the truth: D.J. isn't done with his dad.

It took two years of soul-searching to forgive him, but the boy has decided to ask his father to come to Maryland for a game.

"Yes, I would like him to be there," D.J. says.

Why? "Because I was his first son. And, like, you just have that connection with your dad. You want to be around him all the time. You look up to him as a big brother. He tells me he'll be around once he gets out, and I think he will. And I want him to. Because I just want him to change, turn his life around and be there. I'm going to be on my own in Maryland; the closest people are going to be him and my stepmom, Charisse. So I'm gonna basically need them more than I need my mom. Because they'll be closer."

The father has been in prison waiting to hear this, been in AA meetings waiting to hear this. At one point, when he was sick from battling cancer (now in remission), Darryl Sr. considered suicide. But it was the mere thought of D.J. and his four other children that kept him from acting on it.

"I realized that would've been pretty selfish of me," he says. "I wasn't going to turn my back on the kids, no matter what." He says he won't ignore D.J. this time, that he wanted to call on his 17th birthday but couldn't get to a phone: "There are rules around here. I can only call collect, and only from 5 to 11 p.m. during the week. And guess what? Darryl Strawberry's following the rules. He and his mom need to understand that I'm not sitting at home, laying on my couch, where I can pick up the phone and call my kids."

Still, it is not easy for D.J. to trust him; his dad's not his idol anymore. When he saw the poster over his bed for the photo shoot, D.J. said, "It's coming down." He knows his mom is distrustful too, which is why she wears her stone face. Lisa is just trying to protect her son from his Darryl Sr.'s con game. According to Langston, who's become a family friend, she's gone so far as to call the Maryland coaching staff and ask them to limit Darryl Sr.'s access to D.J. next year. She wants all of his visits to be cleared by her, for fear that he may expose D.J. to contraband.

But it is the son who has to choose -- Mom vs. Dad, club soda vs. beer. And even though D.J. Strawberry says he will never go by "Darryl" again, he's thinking about bringing something else out of storage: his baseball career.

He says this spring, at about the same time his dad is free and clear, he may try baseball one last time. In XXL wristbands. All up his arm.

Lisa doesn't know yet.

This article appears in the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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